Sunday, January 27, 2008

Random Notes on a Theme of Narrative Reliability

1. Not the start because who can say where such things really begin, rather the rallying point for a close look at narrative authority and reliability came from having finished for review J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year.

2. Several pages in, Coetzee reminds us of Barthes and Foucault, architects of deconstructionist critical theory, doing away with the author and drawing us toward the text as the be all and end all, reminding us of Diderot and Sterne.

3. I'm especially sensitive to Sterne and Tristram Shandy, which informs in tone a portion of my in progress Exit, Pursued by a Bear. I admire Dennis Diderot for his encyclopedia constructions, which inform my in the works Writer's Tool Kit, a kid of cross-referenced irreverence that speaks to construction and attitude.

4. Coetze literally tells three stories at once, all on the same page, each layer or level separated by a horizontal line. Thus we hear informal opinions on such things as politics, literature, music, the rule of law, morality, which we readers understand as being the very Strong Opinions one of the characters in the book (who bears certain similarities to Coetzee) was engaged to write by a German publisher. The middle section of the page relate to the author's relationship with a stunningly attractive woman he has hired to be his secretary, and the bottom section is the ongoing relationship between the secretary and her braggart, self-made-man live in boyfriend.

5. The writer is called Senor C and has won a slew of awards; he also has enough money that the secretary's boyfriend, an investment counsellor, is interested in appropriating.

6. Although Coetzee, a Nobel Laureate, has migrated to Adelaide, in south central Australia, this small ensemble cast lives in a high-rise on Sydney's ocean front.

7. Is this novel a roman a clef? Is it a complete fantasy?

8. Doesn't matter. What matters is that it kicks format for a field goal, blurring lines between real and invention, making the invention seem plausible, making the plausible seem somehow like the very confessions tortuously wrung from prisoners of war that Coetzee so firmly resents .

9. How much has the concept of a reliable narrator shifted since the tail end of last century? What constitutes reliability in 2008?

10. The kinds of novels and stories that provoke the most thought are the ones that stray in one way or another from conventional narrative format.

11. Used to be, the most significant ingredient to be found in fiction was suspense, and if you could not manufacture suspense, you were obliged to infuse the next best thing which was tension, and we all know that racial, political, artistic, and sexual tensions are powerful primary causes.

12. Now the ingredient is ambiguity, which can be made to contain tension and perhaps even suspense.

13. What do identities mean? What are motives? What is reality? We had at one point to memorize the names of the Nine Muses. 2008 we can replace them with the nine ambiguities.

14. I think I will be spending more time with Coetzee, especially this one, and looking for ways to tear Exit, Pursued by a Bear farther away from the satire I'd intended and more into a moral ambiguity that seems to be hanging about like the coastal fogs or marine layers that sit off shore here during June and July.

15. I wanted to get this down before it got away.

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